Keeping it in the family

31st May

Many industries have gone through turbulent times in the past few decades, and the housebuilding sector has navigated its fair share of ups and downs. For the close-knit family team at Risby Homes, keeping developments small-scale and not trying to compete with the big players has been the key to their success as the firm approaches its 30th anniversary.

The company was established in Beverley by Mark Barrett in 1993. Now his son Olly, as construction director, handles its day-to-day running and is passionate about carrying on his father’s original mission to build exceptional-quality homes in tandem with first-rate customer service.

Mark has spent a lifetime working in construction, and he started Risby Homes after his family’s firm, the Stepney Group, became a victim of the 1980s recession and eventually went out of business in the early 1990s. He was determined to keep it niche, by building small and single-plot developments, and gradually scaling up over the years. The general philosophy, says Olly, was, and remains, “15 minutes from bed” – which is to say, they keep everything local, most developments being within easy reach of their head office.

“It makes it easier for us to work in this environment,” says Olly, who in 2018 won a Quality Award in the first round of the National House Building Council Pride in The Job Awards, while the company has notched up several more NHBC accolades. “We know we can produce high quality, and we have a good idea of what the market is there as well.”

Putting the customer at the centre of the process is one of the company’s key values.

“We can’t compete with the nationals for the rate of sales, the rate of production or the buying power,” says Olly. “We have to do something different. So as a result, we enable our customers to change anything, at any point. Houses are fully customised and we want customers to be fully involved with the build from the outset – for example, we invite them to come and lay a brick on the house. And they design their kitchens and the bathrooms – if they want to, of course. If they don’t, we can pick that up too.”

Involving customers at literally ground level is just part of the huge emphasis the company places on educating people about the construction industry – which, for Olly, starts in local schools.

Risby Homes | BusinessWorks Magazine
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In partnership with the Humber Training Group, he volunteers in schools to promote the building sector which, he says, generally gets a fair bit of a bad press. There’s no denying it’s hard work, which Olly acknowledges might put off some young people entering the industry, but he says the fact it’s a rewarding career is simply not talked about enough.

“The issue of pay is one that really gets me,” he says. “One of the things we raise awareness of through the teaching programme is the potential earnings. I’ve got guys on site who are on doctors’ wages – and these are people who have come straight out of school with no qualifications to their name. I’ve got friends who’ve been through university and done their Masters who are not earning as much. I’ve been ridiculed for saying this, but it’s true.”

Olly believes that the “stigma” around so-called blue-collar jobs is deep-rooted in children, but Risby Homes is bidding to change that through its work in schools, alongside its apprenticeship scheme.

“I think the industry is in a difficult place because there’s not the quality of applicants coming in through the system as there used to be, but we have a fresh intake of apprentices every year, and we work with the training group at events to try to get kids to be more attracted into the industry.”

Risby Homes also strives to give back to its community, sponsoring numerous local festivals and events each year, as well as grassroots sports including Beverley Grammar School’s rugby team and the Risby Homes netball team. In May 2021, they renovated the play area at Little Weighton Primary School, providing their expertise, machinery and labour without charge.

Those who vociferously oppose new developments would likely argue that this sort of activity is the least that building firms could do – and Olly agrees that there is often a negative perception of housebuilders, not helped by programmes such as Watchdog exposing the many “snagging” issues experienced by people living in new homes built by the leading national firms.

Moreover, the public generally don’t realise just how many more houses will be needed in the coming decades; research shows that the country needs to build 340,000 homes a year until 2031 to keep up with demand.

Olly says his “conscience is clear” because Risby Homes’ developments are sympathetic to the local area and, indeed, enhance it. “It’s frustrating to read hypocritical comments on social media from people who are living in houses that are five or 10 years old and hating the fact that there are new developments going on. And don’t get me wrong, I don’t like taking trees down, but there is a housing need. I’m genuinely proud of all the houses we build, and I think they add to the local kerb appeal. Of course there are other developers who do not have the same company values and unfortunately we are all tarred with the same brush by the public.”

Risby Homes’ latest developments include Shepherd’s Rest, 96 plots to the south of Beverley, which is the company’s biggest project to date. It’s also, says Olly, more efficient to deliver. Five sites of 20 houses result in the same output, but require a far more complex procurement process. But Shepherd’s Rest, and Risby Homes’ other current development, the Vines in Cottingham – which will see 56 luxury homes built in the north of the village not far from the high school – are small fry compared with the huge developments snapped up by the nationals. “There’s a trade-off between going for big sites and small sites, but there’s a place for everyone in the market,” says Olly.

Risby Homes exterior | BusinessWorks Magazine
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Many sites inevitably bring their own challenges – Olly cites a recent development in South Cave that took about five years to come to fruition because of complex drainage issues that needed extensive research and engineering input – plus the spiralling price of materials is another worry for the future.

“The trajectories of house price inflation and build cost inflation are completely different,” says Olly. “Build costs are going up exponentially. The sites that we have purchased were based on a margin for inflation, but I did not expect those costs to have gone up by as much as they have. Yes, the sales prices have increased but when we physically come to build those sites, I have no idea what those houses are actually going to cost. I know to the penny what the costs were a year ago, but now, I have no idea.”

Olly admits that this is a big concern, but stresses that there will be absolutely no cutting corners in terms of quality. “As a business we take the view that we don’t get overexposed – we operate within our own comfort zone and don’t take unnecessary risks. As soon as we get into a situation where we’re in a recession, the larger players will be able to slash prices, but we can’t get into a bidding war because we’re not in the same league as them. So we have to be a standalone product and hope that our customers recognise the quality over what our competitors are producing.”

Olly is also adamant that growth aspirations are not on Risby Homes’ radar – the internal office set-up is the bedrock of the company and determines the pace at which it works.

But, he adds, seeing the end product – people happy in their new homes – makes all of the stress worthwhile. “It’s such a rewarding job, with great customers – and some really good repeat customers, which has been great to see,” he says.

“One homeowner who moved into the site in Beverley at the very beginning has just moved into a bigger house 100 yards down the road, which speaks volumes – that they’ve had the loyalty and confidence in us to be able to go the next rung up the ladder.”

BusinessWorks Hull & East Yorkshire summer 2022

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